25th Anniversary of Women of the Wall – Toldot 5774

There are not many heroines in the Torah, so we must pay special attention to those we do have.

In Parshat Toldot, Isaac is the passive figure.  Rebecca is the one who takes charge – from the very beginning.  When her pregnancy is more than she can bear, God reveals to her that she is carrying twins, and that the older will serve the younger.

God entrusts her with the prophetic knowledge of who would recieve the blessing, placing her in a position of having to act in a bold and urgent manner

She sees what her husband does not – that Esau’s personality is not compatible with the blessing from God that Abraham has passed down to Isaac.  Esau, the hunter, is impulsive, and not much of a thinker.

It is Jacob, the thoughtful, intellectual, crafty son who will make a better person through whom to transfer the promise of blessing.

Later, after she has orchestrated Jacob’s theft of the blessing that Isaac meant from Esau, it is Rebecca who identifies the danger that her younger son now faces.  She counsels him to flee from Esau’s wrath by leaving home.  To achieve that end, she concocts a ruse to convince Isaac to send Jacob away.  She complains that there are no good women in the land of Canaan for Jacob to marry, and so Isaac sends him away to Rebecca’s family in Haran.

Once again, Rebecca’s clear perception of reality, her confident recognition of what needs to happen, and her quick response save the day, and quite possibly her son’s life.

It should not come as a surprise to us that the midrash identifies Rebecca as a Prophetess.

I have spoken about Women of the Wall before.  Last Spring, we held a Living Room Torah dedicated to learning about the history and struggles of this movement.  Rosh Chodesh Kislev, which will occur tomorrow, marks the twenty fifth anniversary of the founding of Women of the Wall, or N’shot Ha’Kotel in Hebrew.  Not only is it a significant anniversary, but it is also a time of great change and tremendous promise, not only for Women of the Wall, but for any Jew who believes that women should be able to play a public role in religiuos life.

Women of the Wall got started in 1988 during an international conference on women’s issues held in Jerusalem.  Rivka Haut, an Orthodox Jew from New York, presented an idea to borrow a Torah from a progressive synagogue and have a prayer service in the women’s section at the Western Wall.  She persuaded some of the conference participants to join her.  It was a diverse group made up of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and even secular Jews – mostly from America.

People at the Kotel were shocked.  Some event reacted by throwing chairs.  The police allowed the women’s service to take place for a while, then they arrested a few of the women for disturbing the peace.  In fact, what they had disturbed was the status quo.

And thus, Women of the Wall was born.

They have spent most of the past twenty five years arguing in the Israeli judicial system for access to pray at Judaism’s holiest site.  More than two decades ago, the courts issued a regulation prohibiting any prayer that is not in keeping with minhag hamakom (the custom of the place).

What is minhag hamakom?

It is difficult to say.  The Western Wall never functioned as a synagogue until after 1967.  In a de facto arrangement, Israeli secular law supported the Orthodox establishment’s total control over the site.  The ultra-Orthodox Rabbi of the Wall gets to define the minhag hamakom.

In 2003, courts designated the Robinson’s Arch area, which is in an archaeological park next to and below the Western Wall plaza, as a place where men and women could pray together with a Torah.  While egalitarian prayers could take place there, there were a lot of problems with the location.  People had to pay admission fees to get into the park.  They had to make reservations.  They didn’t get government funding.  It was not really a solution.

Plus, Women of the Wall did not want to have egalitarian services.  They wanted to have women’s only services.

Things have escalated over the past five years.  Until recently, the Israeli police followed the directives of the ultra-Orthodox Rabbi of the Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, an Israeli government employee.

There have been arrests nearly every month during Rosh Chodesh services.  Ultra-Orthodox Jews opposed to public women’s prayer would come out specifically to disturb them – shouting, spitting, and throwing chairs.

Women were forbidden from wearing tallitot, tefillin, reading from the Torah, and participating in public prayer in the women’s section at the kotel.  Women who violated this would often get arrested.

Over the last year, things have changed at an even more accelerated pace.  With increasing tension in Israel between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the rest of Israeli society over a host of issues, the government has begun to take on some of the sacred cows that it has left alone in the past.

For the first time, none of the ultra-Orthodox parties are in the ruling coalition in the Israeli government.  A few months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu instructed Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Jewish Agency, to come up with a compromise solution.  He developed a plan with three sections: men’s, women’s, and mixed.

Shortly afterwards, on April 14 this past Spring, five women were arrested for “disturbing the peace” during services for Rosh Chodesh Iyar.

The Jerusalem Magistrate Court wanted to release them immediately, but the police petitioned against it.  So it went to Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who happens to be Orthodox.

He ruled that women wearing tallit and tefillin, and reading from Torah in the women’s section did not constitute “disturbing the peace” –  and were not breaking the law.  Women praying out loud as a minyan did not contradict what the law defines as “local custom.”  In fact, it was those who tried to stop them who were disturbing the peace.

Since then, Women of the Wall has continued to hold its monthly services, now with police protection.

There are still many ultra-Orthodox Jews who come to disturb them, including, in a recent development this summer, bussing in yeshiva girls to fill up the women’s section at the Kotel and hiss when members of Women of the Wall try to pray.

Despite Judge Sobel’s ruling, Women of the Wall is still not allowed to bring a Torah into the Women’s Section

Cabinet Secretary Avichai Mandelblit has been appointed to find a resolution – it is expected that they will adopt Natan Sharansky’s recommendations from last Spring to create a third, egalitarian section that is of equal status to the men’s and women’s sections

This solution has been very controversial for Women of the Wall.  Many members feel that they should stick to their goals of having full, equal access for women in the women’s section.

The leadership voted several weeks ago to compromise on some of their positions.  They realized that they were uniquely positioned to play a leadership role on behalf of Jewish groups and denominations that represent a majority of Jews around the world, including the Conservative and Reform movements.

Their compromise comes with conditions.  On Monday, they issued their demands.  Here are some of them:

• The new egalitarian space will need to accommodate at least 500 women and provide for direct physical contact with the Western Wall. It should be at the same level as the existing women’s prayer section and a natural extension of it.

• The new space should be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance should be free of charge without the need to book the area in advance.

• The new space will be renamed to include the word “Kotel” in it. Instead of being called “Ezrat Yisrael,” it will be called “the Kotel – Ezrat Yisrael.”

• Half of the members of the authority administering the new space will be women, including members of Women of the Wall.

• The authority administering the new space will receive at least the same level of government funding as the Orthodox-run Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which today administers the entire area of the Kotel.

• The government will take active measures to refer visitors from abroad, school children, soldiers and visiting dignitaries to the new space. It will also hold official ceremonies there.

• Women of the Wall will participate in designing the new space to ensure that those women who wish to pray together, and not as part of a mixed service, have the means to do so, and that individuals with disabilities are provided with convenient access to the area.

• A sign will be displayed at the Western Wall commemorating its conquest by Israeli army paratroopers in 1967 (something that does not currently appear, anywhere, by the way).

• The authorities administering the different prayer spaces at the Western Wall will hold joint meetings six times a year.

• Control over the upper plaza of the Kotel (the area just above the segregated prayer spaces) be wrested from the hands of the Western Wall rabbi and be transferred to a new authority that will also administer the egalitarian space.  This would restrict the authority of the Kotel rabbi to the men’s and women’s sections only.

Until the demands are met, Women of the Wall will continue to hold their services in the women’s section, once a month on Rosh Hodesh.

They also demanded that the Mandelblit Committee address and prevent the actions of the Rabbi of the Kotel and ultra-Orthodox leaders who are organizing the monthly demonstrations against the Women of the Wall.

Women of the Wall’s plan would transform the overall Kotel area into a space that truly belongs to all of the Jewish people, giving control over the particular areas directly to the people who most need to use them.  It would give equal status and access to all expressions of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and more.

As of a week ago, over 450 women had already registered to participate in Rosh Hodesh services on Monday morning at 8 am, Jerusalem time.  They will be streaming it live if anyone wants to watch from San Jose

As a Conservative Jew, I am grateful that Women of the Wall has taken the lead in the struggle for equal access to Judaism’s holiest and most symbolically significant site, even if I, as a man, cannot participate in their services.

I am reminded of Rebecca, who did not keep silent when she saw the urgent need and opportunity that was before her.

She knew, through prophetic encounter with God, and perhaps through the wisdom that only a mother can have, that blessing needed to flow to someone who would not otherwise be in a position to receive it.  And that person was Jacob.

Where would we be if Rebecca’s voice had been silenced?  Without her courage, and her unwillingness to be placed into the subservient position that she would otherwise have occupied, Jacob would never have fulfilled his destiny, and the Jewish people would never have come into being.

We are witnessing a remarkable event unfolding.  If the trajectory of the last year continues, if Women of the Wall continue to lead this struggle, and if the Netanyahu government continues to try to broker a fair compromise, we will see public recognition of feminist and egalitarian expressions of Judaism in the near future.

And that would truly be a continuation of God’s blessing.

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